School's transformation praised in the Financial Times

Thursday, 15 December 2016

FGCS in the Financial TimesFGCS in the Financial TimesFGCS in the Financial Times

FGCS has featured in today's Financial Times! Read the story below:

School in poor, immigrant neighbourhood rises to top the tables

Forest Gate Community School rated outstanding by Ofsted after transformation

Forest Gate Community School was just another underperforming London secondary school when Simon Elliott took over as headteacher five years ago. By some measures, it is now one of Britain's best.

Pupils there achieve a full extra grade of progress beyond the national average during their school careers, placing Forest Gate in the top 1 per cent of English schools for this new benchmark.

Recent test scores were its best yet. And not only did Ofsted, the schools review body, award it an "outstanding" rating but its leader, Sir Michael Wilshaw, singled out Mr Elliott's "exemplary leadership" and a "transformed" Forest Gate in his final report.

What is so remarkable is that the school has achieved such results in the middle of London's most diverse borough - where 86 per cent of last year's births were to at least one foreign-born parent - and also one of its poorest. More than half the 1,070 students are classed as "disadvantaged" yet they outperform wealthier children nationally.

Such success is a source of pride for Newham, a deprived borough that more commonly tops league tables in categories such as homelessness and tuberculosis. It is also an emphatic rebuttal of the wider gloom about Britain's ability to integrate immigrants that was captured in the recent Casey Review, a long-awaited government report that found growing instances of ghettoisation and isolation.

"My children start here ... significantly below the national average and they leave significantly above it. So something is going on in this school," said Mr Elliott as a gaggle of teenagers in school uniform played outside his window.

Discontent - particularly outside London - over the negative effects of immigration and the problems of multiculturalism was a driving force behind the June 23 vote to leave the EU. Yet Forest Gate appears to buttress a theory promoted by Simon Burgess, a professor at the University of Bristol, and others about the benefits that immigrants bring to schools.

"The children of relatively recent immigrants typically have greater hopes and expectations of education, and are, on average, consequently likely to be more engaged with their school work," Mr Burgess wrote in a 2014 paper. Immigration, he argued, was part of the reason why London schools had recently outperformed the rest of the UK.

Mr Elliott acknowledges the point - "the children of the families we get here bring a lot of aspiration". For instance, students in their final year choose to stay an extra hour after school to prepare for their exams, even on a Friday evening.

An amiable man from a small northern - and mostly white - town, Mr Elliott claims he "had no idea what I was doing" when he took over as headteacher in 2011 and the school was listed by Ofsted as needing improvement.

His explanation for Forest Gate's success may prove frustrating for policymakers seeking prescriptions that can be easily copied elsewhere. He dismisses the interventions in education made by a succession of recent governments as "tinkering" that has not had much impact.

Instead, he credits harder to mimic forces - above all, a changed culture that challenged the notion that students in a poor neighbourhood could not thrive. "We set the bar high ... and then we hold [the pupils] to account for it," he explained.

In practical terms, that means constantly pulling students aside when they are falling behind to provide intensive tutoring. Staff - including the headteacher - are also exposed to regular performance reviews.

Language would appear to be a challenge for a school integrating recent arrivals from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nigeria, eastern Europe and many points in between. Yet it proves manageable. "We can usually pair them up with a native speaker," Mr Elliott said, noting that many of his students were trilingual.

Cultural and religious differences also turn out to be fairly benign in a school where both headscarves and LGBT awareness posters are plentiful. "We haven't been indoctrinated with any racist attitudes or anything, so we're very open," said Kaashif Kamaly, 15, who seemed to regard harmony among people of so many diverse cultures as unremarkable.

Mr Kamaly grew up in Newham after his grandparents came to the UK from Bangladesh. He will soon be interviewed for a place at the prestigious Eton College.

"We've had students come here without English and pull off superb results the following year," he said, while studying Shakespeare on a computer monitor with Rayyan Chagani, a classmate whose parents are from India. "Obviously, something's going tremendously right."

The school's results appear to be spread evenly across ethnic groups, including the white working class, whose struggles elsewhere have become a national crisis. Apart from their scarcity - just 5 per cent of the student body - the most striking thing about a casual visit to Forest Gate may be the quiet of its hallways.

After the Brexit vote and the anti­immigrant sentiment it has aroused, some students worried their parents might be deported, according to teachers. But they pressed on with their studies.

In August, the school learned that 74 per cent of its pupils had obtained five GCSEs at the satisfactory A*-C level in the exams that are a rite of passage for British 16-year-olds. That was up from 47 per cent in 2010, and well above the English average.

Said Mr Elliott, as he peered into a classroom: "I've got a lot of confidence in the future of this country."

Article written by Joshua Chaffin
© The Financial Times Ltd.
All photos © Charlie Bibby